The Evidence is Clear—Cellphones and Learning Do Not Mix

The Evidence is Clear – Cellphones and Learning Do Not Mix
The Evidence is Clear – Cellphones and Learning Do Not Mix

Distraction has always been a teacher’s biggest problem. After all, lessons can only take root if students are paying attention.

Distractions are inevitable. No teacher, no matter how skilled, can filter them all out. Kids bring their distractions to school with them. A sick parent, a lost dog, lack of breakfast, an argument on the school bus—any of these can disturb the highly impressionable mind of the child. School day distractions add to the problem as children concentrate on classroom problems, the coming lunch or relationships that are not going well. Children always have wandering minds that want to be somewhere else.

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However, today the biggest culprit is the cell phone. The evidence is overwhelming.

The Ill Effects of Cell Phones in School

These devices find their way into every school. A recent report co-sponsored by Common Sense Media and C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital is eye-opening. Its key findings are startling.

  1. “The smart phone is a constant companion.” It buzzes, beeps or vibrates without pause. Few students can resist its appeal. Most use it over four hours a day.
  2. “Phone use during school hours is nearly universal but varies widely.” The policies and practices among teachers, schools, districts or states are a “patchwork.”
  3. “Notifications are plentiful, with half of our participants receiving 237 or more per day.”
  4. “TikTok is irresistible, offering bite-size pleasure and low-friction interaction that quickly adapts to the user’s interests or mood.”
  5. “Over half of teens used their phones overnight on school nights,” The study defined overnight as between midnight and 5 a.m.
  6. “Smartphones can allow access to age-inappropriate experiences.”
  7. “Young users admit they have challenges managing their technology use.”

Brain Development and Psychological Health

Some cell activities happen when the students are at home, and carry over into the school. A student texting until five in the morning will not perform well in an afternoon math or history class. TikTok’s under-thirty-second videos do not prepare the mind for long-term learning or reflection.

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When challenged over cellphone use during class, many students claim they can both keep track of the lesson and watch and respond to their screens. In 2018, a team of researchers at Rutgers University studying cellphone use in college classrooms came to an interesting conclusion.

The report stated that such students might be telling the truth. “Dividing attention between an electronic device and the classroom lecture did not reduce comprehension of the lecture, as measured by within-class quiz questions.”

However, that conclusion was far from the whole story. “Instead, divided attention reduced long-term retention of the classroom lecture, which impaired subsequent unit exam and final exam performance.”

One Thing at a Time!

Michael Rich, a pediatrics professor at the Harvard Medical School, described the problem even more plainly.

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“The human brain is incapable of thinking more than one thing at a time. And so what we think of as multitasking is actually rapid-switch-tasking. And the problem with that is that switch-tasking may cover a lot of ground in terms of different subjects, but it doesn’t go deeply into any of them.”

If this is true of college students, a sixth-or seventh-grade student hasn’t got a chance.

However, the harm does not end when the student completes the test and turns it in. The overuse of cell phones can result in both neurological and psychological damage to adolescents.

Building Anxiety

In January 2023, JAMA Pediatrics published a study that looked at adolescents who used “habitual checking behaviors” like looking at social media regularly to determine if their peers “liked” their most recent post.

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“Social media platforms provide adolescents with unprecedented opportunities for social interactions during a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback.

“[H]abitual checking of social media in early adolescence may be…associated with changes in neural sensitivity to anticipation of social rewards and punishments, which could have implications for psychological adjustment.”

Thus, adolescents are so anxious about their peers’ approval that it affects how their brains work and, therefore, their inner well-being.

An Obvious Conclusion that Too Many Schools Reject

The evidence is impressive, and the conclusion is obvious. There should be no room for cell phones in America’s schools.

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Unfortunately, the trend is in the wrong direction. Bloomberg reported that “As of 2020, 76% of public schools said that they prohibited the “non-academic” use of phones during school hours, down from more than 90% a decade earlier. However, as Bloomberg noted, having a rule and enforcing it effectively are two different things. “By all indications, those restrictions are widely flouted.”

The situation is so bad that some states, notably Florida, have passed laws prohibiting the “non-academic use” of cell phones in classrooms. Yet, the problem still expands.

The question is “why?” As usual, in the convoluted world of education, there are several answers.

Looking for Excuses

First, there is a lack of will. Ingrained in many teachers and administrators is the urge to give the child every possible advantage. When kept in the realm of reason, this is a good thing. Everyone agrees that a teacher who does not want the students to do well is worse than no teacher at all. However, a teacher who is too willing to bend the rules for a short-term advantage may be almost as bad.

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Victor Pereira of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education offered an interesting example in which he used the Covid epidemic as an excuse to allow students to use their devices.

“At home, many young people were free to choose how and when to use their phones during learning hours. Now, they face a school environment seeking to take away their main source of connection. Returning back to in-person, I think it was hard to break the habit.”

Schools have a second reason to enforce such rules loosely. Many parents like having the ability to contact their children instantly. It is easy to send your child a text that says, “I had to go to work. Take the bus home.” The alternative is far more complicated. The parent has to call the school, wait for a secretary who has the time to write the message, and then hope that the message actually gets to the child. Such parents don’t understand that this is just one more distraction among many that takes the child’s attention away from the functions of DNA or the conjugating Spanish verbs.

A Culture of Entertainment

A third reason is that those children inhabit a culture of constant entertainment. Too many parents use the cell phone as a way to keep a small child entertained at a restaurant or on a car trip. Having been conditioned that way, is it any wonder that the Pythagorean Theorem just can’t compete?

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Recently, a speech by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was reported in Education Week. “If we tell a child, use the force of your willpower to control how much time you’re spending, you’re pitting a child against the world’s greatest product designers, and that’s just not a fair fight.”

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